Leadership and political risk taking: a comparative analysis of the conflicts in Northern Ireland and in the Basque Country
By Stefan Vedder
Some argue tat most major conflicts are triggered by internal, elite-level activities. At the same time peace processes are often elite-driven with a relatively small number of people responsible for making final decisions. The following analysis examines different attempts in Northern Ireland and the Basque Country to contribute sustainably to a peace process on a political elite-level. It will be shown that the success of leadership and political risk-taking by elites is highly dependent on the circumstances. It will be shown that courageous elite decisions are doomed to have little effect if basic requirements are lacking. Simultaneously, even if the preconditions seem to be appropriate peace processes can fail due to a lack of commitment on the side of political leaders.
The conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Basque Country show - up to a certain extent - notable similarities in their initial situations. In both cases nationalist movements tried/try to alter the state of autonomy in one part of the country. Both conflicts led to cruel violence and left numerous civilians dead. Both conflicts took and take politically place within the particular province and between the province and the federal government of the nation state (Spain/United Kingdom and Ireland). The nationalist movements in both cases are divided between a radical party (Batasuna/Sinn Fein) and a more moderate one (PNV/SDLP). These similarities compose a good starting point for a comparative analysis.
Regarding the generalizability of the findings, two central restrictions must be made. First the small number of cases (only two) discussed in this paper limit the possibility to draw universal conclusions. In statistical terms the extent of the sample is insufficient to make a valid statement about the relation of the variables „leadership and political risk taking’ and „development or outcome of a peace process’. Another crucial point is that the variables in the two cases are not perfectly independent from each other as political decisions made in Northern Ireland are thought to have had an influence on the political sphere and thus on the peace process in general in the Basque Country.
The Northern Ireland conflict
It is argued that the political leadership in Northern Ireland, which was largely in place since the 1970s and 1980s, were a “driving force in creating the environmental and structural changes needed which led to the peace process and eventual agreement” in the late 1990s. Since the 1920s political leadership and risk taking in Northern Ireland was hardly present, as the separate factions (nationalists and unionists) were divided among different beliefs of how to overcome the conflict (constitutional solution or military solution for instance). There were no leaders fully representative of a community’s viewpoints. During the era of direct Westminster rule from 1972 to 1998 the political leadership lacked power and authority and was heavily reliant on outside influences. Furthermore qualified potential leaders shied away from political participation in Northern Ireland as politics there became viewed with increasing disrespect or left the country towards England or the US. Nonetheless the Northern Ireland conflict experienced various moments of political risk-taking. Different leaders undertook attempts to contribute to a political settlement of the conflict.
The government of Ireland Act of 1920 separated the Irish island into two parts with parliaments in Dublin and Belfast. The Dublin parliament administered the 26 catholic counties whereas the Belfast parliament administered the six largely protestant counties of the northeast. The Irish war of independence, in which the Irish Republican Army (IRA) fought a guerrilla war against the British government and its forces in Ireland, ended 1921 with the British- Irish treaty between Southern Ireland and Britain. The Irish Free State with dominion status was established whereas Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom. Between 1921 and 1972 Northern Ireland had its own regional government, which was continuously formed by the Ulster Unionists. During this episode the governing Unionists made few efforts to win nationalist support. It is argued that apart from the establishment of a police force that was almost exclusively protestant a deliberate discrimination against Catholics had taken place especially in the areas of emp]loyment and housing. Furthermore electoral boundaries were openly gerrymandered in favour of the Protestants. These grievances led to the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s. As a reaction to republican demonstrations and marches the Unionist Prime Minister O’Neill tried to appease Catholics by various reforms supported by the Labour government in London. O’Neill failed to gather the support of his followers for his reform politics as a response to the public republican protests. He suffered a severe loss in support from the Unionist rank-and-file and disunity among the Unionists began to emerge. After militant republicans and diverse loyalist terror groups then started to engage in campaigns of violence the British government deployed armed forces to Northern Ireland to enforce order. The violence took mainly place between the newly formed Provisional IRA and the British army, but loyalist paramilitaries also contributed. The violence peaked in 1972, when 468 people died, and declined afterwards to an annual average of below 100. At the beginning of the 1970s the Stormont government - backed by the newly elected conservative government in London - introduced emergency legislation and internment without trial under which predominantly Catholics had to suffer. The change in leadership in Britain and its shift from a reformist approach towards a hard line determined to restore order and give clear backing to the Stormont regime is believed to have been a major contribution towards the shift from the civil rights campaign to a campaign of terror. A British government with greater foresight and with a strong commitment to find solutions for the Catholics’ discrimination could have exercised pressure on the Stormont government to pursue moderate, reformist politics.
In 1973 the Sunningdale Agreement was to establish a power-sharing executive for Northern Ireland to accommodate the Nationalists. The agreement was signed by the British and Irish prime ministers as well as by representatives of the Ulster Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. So on the elite-level republicans (SDLP) and loyalists (UUP) participated in finding a solution. The power-sharing executive, however, collapsed in 1974 due to opposition from the IRA, which saw the partition of Ireland reinforced, and from the loyalist grassroots level. On the Unionists’ side hardliners such as DUP leader Ian Paisley saw the deal as a sell-out. Subsequently, UUP leader Faulkner failed to secure majority support from his party or from Unionist voters in general. A general strike by the protestant Ulster Worker’s Council paralysed the province and brought the power sharing experiment to an end. The grassroots Protestants were not willing to share power with catholic politicians and they opposed the establis hment of a „Council of Ireland’ what they feared to be a step into the direction of Irish Unity. Faulkner was taking high political risks by cooperating with the nationalist SDLP and resigned after his failure. In 1969 and 1974 two leaders of the Unionist party did not manage to gain the support of their followership and failed to unite the different tendencies within the loyalist movement. The Sunning- dale agreement has shown that a peace effort „dictated’ by leaders is not working if the r e- spective followership is not brought aboard. Furthermore the Sunningdale agreement left the fact unconsidered that the sectarian factions (Catholics and Protestants) were separated among themselves. “If non-elites feel that the democratic process is not within their control then they have the capacity to destroy virtually any political initiative”, Arthur argues. Gaining the support of the followers before final decisions are made is crucial for leaders. Faulkner failed to do so in the run-up to the Sunningdale agreement and he did not succeed in convincing his followers in the aftermath. The regional parliament in Stormont was then abolished and direct rule from Westminster was introduced.
Since the late 1970s British governments increasingly sought to manage the crisis through bilateral diplomacy with Dublin. From December 1984 senior civil servants in Ireland and Britain began exploratory talks which led to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. The agreement established a forum through which British and Irish ministers could discuss Northern Irish affairs. Furthermore a closer Anglo-Irish collaboration on security issues was agreed upon. The agreement was opposed by Sinn Fein and the two main unionist parties. One aspect of the agreement was that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland could only change with the consent of a majority of its inhabitants. Unionists heavily opposed to the agreement as they had not been consulted in the negotiations at all. They especially did not agree with the Irish dimension of the Agreement. Attempts by the UUP and the DUP to cause a cancellation of the Agreement through a campaign of political disruption and demonstrations failed, though. The Anglo-Irish agreement did not help to bring an immediate end to violence and exacerbated concerns within the Unionist society. This was primarily due to the exclusive character of the Agreement. Only the British and Irish governments were included in the negotiations and all parties in Northern Ireland were left out. Political solutions that are found during negotiations that exclude major (in this case basically all) conflict parties have feet of clay and are prone to have little real effects towards settling a conflict. Nevertheless the Anglo-Irish process is thought to have had an impact towards eventual accords as “the Agreement provided the groundwork for the view that the „Troubles‟ were the business of both Dublin and London”.
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